Register Tuesday | January 21 | 2020

Italy’s Moon Landings

Forty years ago today, Americans landed on the moon. In Italy, they did it twice.

The voice was loud and clear despite the distance and the crackling of the airwaves. Buzz Aldrin was speaking into my earphones and describing, for the first time in humanity’s history, the surface of the moon visible from the small triangular window of the lunar module (LEM).

Only ten minutes before Neil Armstrong had landed the LEM in the Sea of Tranquillity with pinpoint accuracy. After the blackout interval necessary to readjust the instruments on board, Aldrin’s words broke through. "It looks like a collection of every variety of shape, a collection of just about every kind of rock" forming "craters, ridges, angular stones."

Angularity, granularity: what is this, I thought. Why can’t an astronaut, even if he is a scientist, describe the moon surface that nobody had seen before him in a more passionate way?

I was sitting in a small cramped booth in one of the studios of RAI, the Italian national broadcasting company, where high-ranking guests had been invited to witness the moon landing. "25 ore con la luna" (25 hours with the moon) was the title of the programme. My role, together with two other interpreters, was to translate into Italian every one of Aldrin’s words. Our translations were then picked up by the two anchor journalists and the group of scientists and experts who in turn gave their opinions and comments on what was happening.    

It was a hot July in Rome. I had been to the beach in the morning and I still felt the heat on my skin. But when I heard Aldrin describe the surface of the moon using words like "angularity" or "granularity" I had goosebumps. I had to keep translating but could not help thinking: can he possibly be so well-trained as to give the impression of having no feelings, of showing no emotion? What about the colour, I thought. Is there colour on the moon? At that moment I heard an astronaut—presumably Armstrong—explain that the rocks were mainly grey, "all shades of grey"  and that "there doesn’t appear to be much of a general colour at all" as if answering my request. But then Aldrin came in and added as if to mitigate the disappointment of all this greyness: "The colour depends on what angle you’re looking at…rocks and boulders look as though they’re going to have some interesting colours." At last the scientist was giving way to the man! Some more human touches were creeping in!

The really exciting moment came when Aldrin started describing the earth. It appeared colourful, compared to the greyness of the moon. "It’s big, and bright, and beautiful," Aldrin said. Staring at the earth below him, his distant and cold approach melted away.

The "25 hours with the moon" in Italy had begun late morning with two anchormen introducing the guests (astronomers, physicists, politicians) who sat round a table to give their opinions. Maps of the moon surface were being circulated but nobody seemed to know what to do with them apart from reading them upside down or trying to find the "Mare Tranquillitatis" where, as the NASA experts were explaining from Houston, the lunar module was due to land.

The booths for the interpreters had a direct audio link with Houston’s Spaceflight Centre. We had to convey to the audience the sense of what was being said by the technicians in Houston and their conversations with the three astronauts who were manning the Apollo 11 spaceflight.

After the lunar module Eagle had successfully detached from the spacecraft carrier Columbia, the excitement started to rise in the theatre. I had now to follow three sources of sound: Mike Collins, the pilot of the command module Columbia, who would wait for the return of the Eagle’s team touring round the moon, the Eagle’s team Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, the captain, and the Spaceflight Centre team at Houston.

The Eagle started its descent towards the moon and from Houston they were giving in quick succession the distances from the moon surface. "100.000 feet, 70.000, 50.000" and so on. Translating those figures into meters would have been impossible for me. I told the journalists that I would give the numbers exactly as they were announced from Houston. There was no time to make the calculations. The numbers dwindled in a rapid succession: 25.000, 10.000, 5.000. Then 2000, 1000, and finally I heard a voice from the spacecraft centre saying: "That’s it! They are there!"

I translated this and I also translated the following sentence coming from Houston: "We are waiting for the official announcement that the Eagle has landed." I barely finished the sentence when my words were completely drowned out by the applause that exploded from the theatre in Rome. "They have arrived! They have arrived," one of the two anchors was shouting. 

"Why are you clapping?" asked the RAI correspondent in Houston. And he repeated what I had just said: "We are waiting for the official announcement." It was at this moment that the announcement arrived. "Engines stopped: the Eagle has landed," I translated faithfully. A second, even more powerful applause shook the theatre. 

Afterward, peeved, I went to talk to the anchor. I reminded him that I had warned him to wait for the official announcement before starting to clap. He laughed. "It is ok, it is ok, don’t worry," he said. I had the impression he did it on purpose, as if he wanted to jump the queue and get all the glory for being the first to break the news.

The next morning, some newspapers ran the following headline: "In Italy they landed twice on the moon."